Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies Nurtures Creativity

The Art of Ideas: A successful charter school in Detroit draws out students' creativity in all classes, not just art and design


From the 1930s through the early ’50s, Detroit’s Argonaut Building served as the research-and-design incubator for General Motors, where engineers rolled up their sleeves to sketch their visions on blackboards and drafting paper.

Today, the building in the New Center, known as the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, houses part of the College for Creative Studies, and, since 2009, a charter school that has built an art-centric curriculum around the principles of visual expression, empathy, and scholarship.

The 690 or so middle- and high-school students who have flocked to the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies (HFA: SCS) from the city and suburbs are encouraged, through art classes and design projects, to visualize their ideas, whether they’re reading a novel, working on a geometry theorem, or concocting lip gloss in a science lab. Their tools: Macs and Prismacolor pencils. Their uniforms: polo shirts color-coded by grade level.

The school currently has students in grades six through 11; today’s 11th-graders will become the school’s first senior class in 2012-13.

Parents are drawn to HFA: SCS because they’re seeking a safe environment for their children, “and we’re a pretty amazing building,” says Principal Michelle White. The interior design of the school, part of a $145-million renovation by CCS in 2008, reflects its aims at promoting a college-bound attitude, fostering a connectedness among students, and a strikingly young teaching staff, and its emphasis on aesthetics. A palette of lime and plum accents carpets, security stations, and the cafeteria that students share with CCS.

Priming students for higher education means putting them face to face with the college preparation office near the front entrance of the Milwaukee Street building. All students take career-counseling workshops, and, beginning in ninth grade, the staff meets with high schoolers and their parents to prepare them for the next stage in their education.

“We want them to know what their options are so they don’t have to stick to one school,” college-transition counselor Reha Mallory says.

Sending 90 percent of its students on to college is part of HFA: SCS’ mission. As a Thompson Educational Foundation 90/90 school, it’s required to meet that goal or risk losing its charter, which is authorized by Grand Valley State University.

In a city where the high-school graduation rate hovers just above 60 percent, and in a school where many of its students came with little background in art, its ambitions are lofty.

“We face the challenges of many urban schools, where students come in with significant academic deficiencies in math, reading, and writing,” says White, a vibrant Brooklyn native who formerly headed the University Preparatory Academy in Detroit and came on board as the HFA: SCS founding principal in 2009. “We’ve seen students improve being here at our school. We see our students understanding the design thinking process, and we use that not just in art classes but in math, social studies, English, health.”

Two years of MEAP scores (the state-sanctioned barometer of school performance) reflect the work that needs to be done, but HFA: SCS met Average Yearly Progress goals last year and has outpaced the performance of Detroit Public Schools, White says. With the standards raised again by the state, it will take time to readjust.

Still, “We don’t teach to MEAP,” White says. “Of course, we recognize it’s an important standard because it’s what people will use to judge your school. We’re teaching the skills that we believe are necessary to have students enter the world of college and the world of work.” HFA: SCS does not require incoming students to produce an art portfolio, but, “ideally, we’d like students interested in the areas of art and design,” she says.

A lack of art education isn’t necessarily a hindrance, although, as a core subject, students spend as much time giving physical shape to their ideas as they do kicking a soccer ball in the gym. Sitting in the art studio of 25-year-old teacher Aaron Kuehne, Edward Griswold, a 10th-grader who left University Prep Science and Math for HFA: SCS two years ago, said he really isn’t much of an artist. Nor, he says, is he interested in art and design, although he earned an A and B-plus in graphic design and drawing.

“My old school was kind of boring,” says Griswold, a Detroit resident. “Here, there are more classes you can enroll in. And, they push you to the limit.” He shyly opened his sketchbook to show a pencil drawing he made for an assignment that called for incorporating a food into a design. His slice of cheesecake became a parking structure that wouldn’t be out of place in any big city. Griswold’s ambition is to study computer engineering at Michigan State University.

Kuehne, a CCS graduate who teaches eighth-grade art, says his mission is teaching creativity, not necessarily technique, although he can coax very fine work from his students, such as a self-portrait in pencil that hangs on a wall in his classroom. Other students enjoy making digital illustrations — and the school uses the software to accommodate their inspiration.

“I believe everyone can be creative thinkers, even if they don’t become professional designers,” says Kuehne, whose uniform includes skinny jeans and an asymmetric haircut. One of his projects is a word map in which students free-associate an idea that ultimately becomes an object, like a paper sculpture (using recyclable materials).

HFA: SCS originated as a partnership between Henry Ford Learning Institute in Dearborn and CCS as a way of boosting minority enrollment and fostering the creative minds of tomorrow. A hallmark of learning at HFA: SCS is the contact students have with design professionals, often from CCS, who regularly visit to share their ideas and experience. Sixth-graders designed prototypes of study spaces that were judged by a professional chair designer and fabricator. A woman who had been displaced from her home in Sierra Leone spoke to a sixth-grade language arts class that had been reading a novel about the trials of surviving after a natural disaster.

Students are also encouraged to compete in art competitions and to participate in projects such as One Million Bones, a national social-arts program intended to raise awareness of genocide worldwide. HFA: SCS high schoolers — the only high schoolers in the nation to participate — made 1,000 bones from clay that will be part of an installation next year on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Last fall, eighth-grader Wyatt Gage of Royal Oak, won first place (and $100) in the citywide Mind the Gap competition for a railroad garden design he submitted after Kuehne showed him a photo of the Michigan Central Depot. His rendering will be displayed at the Detroit Design Festival in September.

“I thought it would be fun to enter a contest to see how I’d do,” says Wyatt, 12. “I was thinking about the city, how to liven the place up.’”

Wyatt’s mother, Marisa Gaggino, owner of Heritage Company II Architecture Artifacts in Royal Oak, says sending Wyatt to HFA: SCS meant pulling him from a very comfortable environment, a small, suburban private school he’d attended since he was a toddler. Gaggino and Wyatt’s father, Richard Gage, a sculptor and commercial artist, felt their son needed to stretch socially and creatively.
“We wanted him to be in an environment where that was part of the structure of his education,” Gaggino says. The school’s guiding principles, incorporating ‘design thinking’ throughout the curriculum, excited them. Learning geometry by designing a house struck the pair as a truer way of teaching than traditional rote learning.

As for the cultural piece, Gaggino is frank: “Rick and I are both white, grew up in the suburbs. Wyatt needed to know that not everybody in the world is free, white, and privileged. We didn’t want him growing up like we did.”

Their concerns about keeping Wyatt, a bright child, interested in school, is shared by HFA teachers and administrators, who know him by name and have worked with Gaggino and Gage to make sure he’s not bored. They’ve provided him with a math tutor and, in the second half of the last school year, bumped him to seventh grade.

The opportunities he’s had are fantastic, she says, like meeting the animators of the Pixar movie Cars and going on a special tour of the Auto Show.

Says Gaggino: “It’s an opportunity to be part of what’s going on in Detroit and what’s going on in the world.”

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